As global travel restrictions due to the pandemic lift, air travel has resumed at stratospheric levels. With increased flight traffic, though, there will be more incidents of injuries during the various phases of flight, even if that risk remains extremely low.
For example, reports of severe turbulence linked to climate change have risen. Reports of design flaws and automation glitches have also surfaced. And there’s still the looming risk of getting COVID-19 aboard a flight. That all raises the question — can you seek legal representation if you get injured or sick 38,000 feet up or afterward? This post will examine the question and when a personal injury attorney comes into the mix.
Types of air travel-related injury and illness risks
For all nervous flyers out there — flying is still the safest way to travel. Numbers prove it. Between 2017 and 2021, there were 36.6 million flights annually, on average. Among that number, there was an average of forty-four accidents, with seven being fatal. To put it in further perspective, look at the number of people who flew just before the pandemic in 2019. That year, 4.7 billion people took a flight, yet there were 240 fatalities.
Lastly, flying is much safer than driving. Between 20 and 50 million drivers suffer injuries yearly from road accidents, while 1.3 million fatalities occur annually due to traffic accidents. Of course, air travel does get dangerous on extremely rare occasions. There are tragic stories, such as the fatal crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. But there are yearly reports of injuries occurring mid-flight and illnesses that may come from flying itself.
Common aviation injuries and illnesses
- Musculoskeletal injuries — Sudden turbulence can do more than spill drinks. Not only are the bumps and drops of turbulence frightening, but severe turbulence can also lead to bruises, soft tissue damage, concussions, and broken bones. That usually happens if overhead luggage falls out, a stray food and drink cart hits a passenger, or a passenger gets ejected from their seat.
- Smoke inhalation and burns — These injuries rarely happen and typically occur during fires and crash landings. When they do occur, they can be severe and life-threatening.
- COVID-19 and other diseases — Infectious disease has always been a risk while flying, but the pandemic brought that risk to the forefront. Lockdowns, masks, and filtration systems significantly reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 on planes, but it is still present. Aside from pathogens, some people may get sick from other ailments aggravated by flying, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
- Psychological trauma — Experiencing severe turbulence, an emergency landing, or some life-threatening situation while flying can induce life-long trauma for some flyers.
Events such as brawls among irate passengers have become more common and can lead to injuries. They, too, are rare though.
Passenger versus plane: Who’s liable for what and when
The general rule of thumb is this: if the airline was negligent, they are solely responsible for a passenger injury. If the passenger was negligent in some way, the airline maintains its innocence. But determining liability can get complex.
When it comes to personal injury law, there are instances where neither the airline nor the passenger is at fault, leading to a stalemate. The opposite is true as well. Some conditions are quite clear for a personal injury attorney to address.
Ignoring the seat belt sign
If a passenger gets hurt during turbulence for not wearing their seat belt, it is solely the passenger’s fault. That’s especially true if the seat belt sign was on and the passenger ignored it.
Failure to put on the seat belt sign
If the pilot doesn’t turn the seat belt sign on for some reason, an injury due to turbulence may or may not be the airline’s liability. It’s hard to determine.
First, it’s doubtful a pilot wouldn’t turn the seat belt sign on if they knew turbulence from active weather was approaching. But if a pilot neglected to put the seatbelt sign on for some reason, knowing turbulence was ahead, they would be negligent.
With that said, planes do encounter what’s known as clear-air turbulence (CAT). That is sudden jolts and bumps, even if no clouds or storms are nearby. It’s challenging to predict clear-air turbulence, so if the plane jolts and the seat belt sign is off, it’s not the pilot’s fault. They, too, can be caught off guard just as passengers.
There are two notable cases where passengers filed lawsuits against airlines based on the claim they knowingly flew into turbulent skies. They involved a Singapore Airlines SQ308 from Singapore – London mid-2013 and a JetBlue Airways B6 429 from Boston to Sacramento on August 11, 2016. Both flights experienced significant turbulence and passenger injuries. They were unsuccessful. Pilots can encounter heavy turbulence even while trying to avoid bad weather, so there’s no negligence on their part.
Finally, many pilots now keep seat belt signs on for the entire flight, and flight attendants recommend it. These measures safeguard airlines from liability.
Flight attendants moving carts at the wrong time
Flight attendants should use food and drink carts during steady flight. At most, they can push a cart during minor turbulence. However, they MUST return food and drink carts to the kitchen once the seat belt sign comes on.
If for some reason a flight attendant ignored these warnings, a stray food cart leading to passenger injury would be an airline liability. Of course, these events are exceedingly rare. Also, a sudden jolt from unexpected turbulence leading to a food cart injury is not an airline liability.
Plane crash or emergency landing that causes injury
Survivors of a plane crash or emergency landings can file a claim as long as negligence is to blame. In some cases, negligence is obvious. The tragic downings of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 are examples of this. Both flights were using Boeing 737 MAX planes, plagued by a design flaw Boeing ignored and kept secret.
Boeing was charged with criminal conspiracy and agreed to a $2.5 billion settlement, which included compensation for the victims’ families. Horrific instances like these are solely the airline’s responsibility. A personal injury attorney would help families receive compensation in such cases.
However, other cases are different. Consider, for example, the famous Miracle on the Hudson. Now considered a hero, retired pilot Capt. Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger III safely landed a U.S. Airways plane on the Hudson River in 2009. The emergency landing led to some injuries but, thankfully, no deaths.
The airline wasn’t negligent, though. A flock of geese flew into the engines (aka “bird strike”), leading to their failure and the emergency landing. Passengers couldn’t sue the airline for damages because of this, but they received $5000 in compensation for lost luggage.
Getting COVID-19 or sick from flying
Getting sick from COVID-19 while flying is unlikely to be the airline’s fault. They take many precautions to keep you safe in the first place, such as enforced mask use and having air filtration systems on their planes.
One could argue the airline would be responsible if a filtration system failed, leading to a COVID-19 infection. Of course, the likelihood of that happening is low since these systems undergo regular checks and maintenance.
When and how personal injury attorneys can help
Fortunately, the likelihood of encountering an aviation accident is slim. When accidents happen, they’re usually minor. Sadly, major crashes can happen.
When negligence leads to such events, a personal injury attorney can help victims get the compensation they deserve. That goes for both survivors of crashes and family members of deceased victims. The law will always side with the passenger when employees of an airline willingly jeopardize their safety.
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